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Rock's revered Model T

September 04, 2003|Kim Q. Berkshire | Special to The Times

Nowhere outside of a gourmet kitchen has a frying pan created such a stir.

But through the end of November, "The Frying Pan," the original prototype for today's electric guitar, will be what's cooking at the Museum of Making Music in Carlsbad. The 1931 instrument, which hasn't been on public display since a two-year stint at the Smithsonian in 1996, is part of the "Eclectic Electric" exhibition in the museum's yearlong tribute to the guitar.

Carolyn Grant, executive director of the 3-year-old museum, remembers telephoning Chief Executive John Hall of Santa Ana-based Rickenbacker to see what the longtime guitar manufacturer would be willing to contribute to the exhibition. "He said, 'How about the Frying Pan?' " said Grant, who could hardly believe her ears.

According to rock author Paul Williams, who likens the priceless piece to Henry Ford's original Model T automobile, one would have to look back a half-century or more to find an instrument of comparable importance.

"This is only the second time it's been out of our hands," Hall said. "As the first modern electric guitar, it's a pretty valuable instrument in the scheme of things."

Yet Hall was willing to lend it because of the museum's mission and because of the guitar's Southern California roots: the Frying Pan was first carved in wood on a kitchen table, then mass produced in cast-aluminum a year later, in 1932, in a small rented shop next to Adolph Rickenbacker's tool and die plant in Los Angeles.

Grant expects increased attendance for the showing. "The electric guitar isn't just about loud rock 'n' roll," she said. "It's jazz, it's country; so many things can happen with the electric guitar. We want people to walk away with a 'Wow, this is human creativity at its best.' You don't have to know a lot about it to appreciate it. There's an energy that goes with it. It's very powerful."

Visitors will learn that the Frying Pan evolved out of -- what else? -- the desire for a louder guitar. George Beauchamp, who tinkered with amplifying sound for 10 years, eventually teamed with Paul Barth to develop the electromagnetic pickup technology that essentially is still used today. Also called the Pancake, it was designed to be played on the lap and sold well to fans of Hawaiian music.

The museum, which benefits from spillover traffic from Legoland, scrambled to insure the piece and has hired extra security for the exhibit's run. Landing the famous long-necked, round-bodied instrument prompted e-mail congratulations from the likes of Roger McGuinn of the Byrds as well as a humorous, doctored photograph of a Rembrandts' band member playing the 70-year-old guitar.

To do justice to its vast history, Grant's staff has produced a 45-minute touch-screen video that can be viewed in two-minute segments and includes a "guitar effects" segment that allows listeners to try to differentiate between a Fender and a Stratocaster.

Although the Frying Pan is the centerpiece, half a dozen other classic electrics representing the golden age of guitar innovation, 1948 to 1955, will be on display. Rounding out the cast is the Line 6 Variax, a digital guitar that can reproduce the sounds of the guitars that preceded it.


The Frying Pan

Where: Part of the "Eclectic Electric" exhibition at the Museum of Making Music, 5790 Armada Drive, Carlsbad

When: Opens Friday. Hours, Tuesdays-Sundays, 10 a.m.-5 p.m., except Thanksgiving. Ends Nov. 30.

Cost: $5; $3 for students, seniors and military

Info: (760) 438-5996 or

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